The NFL is the most popular sports operation in the United States. It’s regularly the most-watched program on every major network, and the Super Bowl brings in more eyeballs than any other event in the world.
But for as great as football is, and for as much success as the league has had, some of the fun has been taken out of the game. Players can’t dance after touchdowns, dunk on the goal posts or even pretend to take a nap on the field. Those were all things that were allowed in yesterday’s NFL, but today’s league doesn’t have the same flexibility or openness to creativity.
Ratings have dropped this season, and players are voicing their issues with the NFL on a weekly basis. Josh Norman is calling for Roger Goodell to be stripped of his title, Aaron Rodgers is telling the NFL to allow players to celebrate, and the frustrations certainly don’t end there.
Here are 13 ways to make the NFL fun again and improve the overall quality (and watchability) of the game.
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Let players wear any number they want
In college, rules on jersey numbers are far more lenient. Defenders can wear whichever digit they’d like, while offensive players are hardly limited themselves. Backs (and receivers) can wear numbers from 1-49, while ends (tight ends and receivers) can go from 80-99. Reggie Bush wore No. 5 at USC. Dez Bryant donned No. 1 at Oklahoma State. Patrick Peterson was No. 7 as an LSU defensive back. None of those players is able to wear his college number in the pros because of the league’s strict position-specific rules.
Make numbers fun again and allow quarterbacks to wear numbers above 19, and let running backs wear single-digits. Let defensive linemen wear numbers below 50. Seeing Leonard Fournette wearing No. 7 next year would be spectacular. Or imagine watching Jadeveon Clowney wreak havoc in backfields in his iconic No. 7 jersey. Sure, it might confuse officials, but let’s face it: They’re already confused.
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Encourage more creativity on offense with softer formation rules
Teams have been flagged for illegal formations 42 times this season – not a huge number, but one that should be reduced to zero. “Wait, what?!” Yep, the NFL should encourage teams to be more creative without instituting finicky rules preventing specific formations. If a team wants to put its entire line of scrimmage on one side of the field with just the center and the quarterback where the ball is spotted, it should be able to.
This is possible in today’s NFL, but it comes with so many specifications with receivers needing to be “uncovered” and on or off the line of scrimmage. Allow teams to get creative on offense with different formations. Linemen would still need to report as eligible to avoid confusion with ineligible men downfield, but more can be done to open up playbooks.
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Flex schedules more often
The NFL is allowed to flex games out of primetime Sunday night slots in favor of a more interesting, simply better game. That ability begins in Week 5, but it’s not often used until after the midway point of the season. This needs to change. Allow games to be flexed all season long so things like the Bears playing in primetime two weeks in a row can be avoided. After seeing them get beat by the Texans in Week 1 and stomped by the Eagles on Monday night the following week, the NFL could have clearly seen the Bears weren’t good and taken them off of Sunday night football in Week 3 (they were crushed 31-17 by the Cowboys).
Yet, the then-1-6 Bears were still kept in primetime in Week 8 when they took on the Vikings. They’re not a fun team to watch, and Packers-Falcons or Seahawks-Saints would have been far more interesting that week. If the NFL wants to showcase its best product to the most viewers on a weekly basis, it needs to allow flex scheduling throughout the season – and use it far more often than it does currently.
Get rid of Thursday night games
With the drop in ratings this season, some have taken a look at the possibility that there’s simply too much football on TV – an oversaturation of it, to be more precise. There’s no way to reduce the number games in a given week without either shortening the season or adding a second bye, but there is a way to improve the quality of the product: eliminate Thursday night games.
Coaches don’t like them, players hate them, and the majority of fans don’t watch them anyway. Get rid of Jaguars-Titans on Thursday night, which is not only uninteresting, but the quality of the game is degraded by the shortened week for players and coaches. There isn’t enough time to prepare or recover from the all-out war they just went through four days prior. It’s unfair to teams, and to fans as well.
Few people outside of Nashville and Jacksonville want to watch Titans-Jaguars on Sunday, let alone on a short week on Thursday night. Keep the schedule to Sunday and Monday, and maybe the occasional Saturday night game. Thursdays have to go, though.
Eliminate commercials after touchdowns, kickoffs
NFL games are getting increasingly long, and it’s a big reason the league bumped afternoon games back to 4:25 ET – 1 p.m. games were beginning to run too long, spilling over into the late-game slot.
One of the most infuriating and mood-killing aspects of an NFL broadcast is the constant breaks after a team scores a touchdown. Here’s how it goes, although you’re probably already aware:
See how long that takes? Fans go from excitement to boredom with essentially a 5- to 10-minute stretch of pointless, drag-out “stuff.” We all understand that money is made in advertising, but keep the flow of the game going by eliminating those constant commercial breaks following touchdowns. It’s a major, major buzzkill.
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You won’t find a single fan in the world who wants to sit through a four-hour football game only to see it end in a tie after a 15-minute overtime period. No one wants that – not the players, not the fans, not the league (or at least it shouldn’t). The NFL made the right move by altering OT rules a few years ago, but it wasn’t enough to fix the extra period completely. Both teams aren’t guaranteed a possession, and it drags out the game with somewhat unexciting football.
The NFL has to admit that its younger brother, college football, has gotten something right that it has yet to perfect. Adopt the overtime rules from college and call it a day. Both teams are guaranteed a possession, you won’t have boring plays from a team’s own 20-yard line with no chance to score, and games will be more exciting. Best of all, NO MORE TIES. Every play in overtime will be must-see, and when a team does score a touchdown, there’s strategy involved in deciding to go for two or taking a chance at a 33-yard extra point.
Make two-point conversions mandatory
One of the best decisions the NFL ever made was moving the extra point back to 33 yards. It made an otherwise pointless and boring play actually interesting. Just look at the way the Broncos-Saints game ended, or the number of PATs kickers have missed the past two years. There’s just one problem: It’s still not nearly exciting enough, unless the PAT comes with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. How do you make the play after a touchdown more watchable? Require teams to go for two … EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
The two-point conversion isn’t the most riveting play, but look at the way it impacted Sunday’s Cowboys-Steelers game. They failed a combined six times, and had the Steelers converted even two of their four two-point tries, the game would have shifted dramatically. Making those plays mandatory not only rids the league of a still-boring extra point, but it changes the way teams think about field goals in different situations.
Require alternate uniforms at least four times per team
Alternate uniforms are awesome. No matter the sport, seeing a team sporting unique jerseys and helmets is something that excites fans in the weeks leading up to the game. Why do you think the NFL came up with Color Rush uniforms? To stir up interest for Thursday night games. The only issue with that – besides the Jaguars’ mustard-colored get-ups – is that there simply aren’t enough games where teams wear alternates.
Just think if the Dolphins wore their beautiful throwbacks four or five times a season. Fans would spend their entire paychecks to make those things disappear from store shelves just so they could wear them on game days. And those all-black Falcons jerseys? There isn’t a person on this planet that wouldn’t enjoy seeing those multiple times a year.
The NFL should make it mandatory that every team has to wear an alternate/throwback/Color Rush uniform at least four times a year. And while the league is at it, let teams wear different helmets to pull those throwbacks together. It’s a win-win for the league, its players and fans.
Fix pass interference/defensive holding
This is a two-fold issue. The first is with defensive pass interference.
Too often, a pass interference call is missed, or an official swallows his whistle because the play occurs at the end of a game in a crucial moment. We’ve seen this happen at least twice this season – both with the Seahawks on defense (shocking, right?). Richard Sherman blatantly interfered with Julio Jones at the end of the Seahawks-Falcons game, but he wasn’t penalized. Why? Because the official either missed it or didn’t want a flag to determine the outcome.
The second instance came on Sunday night against the Patriots. On fourth-and-goal with the game hanging in the balance, Rob Gronkowski went down alongside Kam Chancellor – no call. This was actually the best no-call of the season because Gronk initiated the contact. That’s not the issue. The problem is that there were still thousands saying it was interference and thousands who didn’t think so. The NFL has to do something about the constant discrepancy between interference and a clean defensive play, whether that’s by making it reviewable or challengeable something has to be done.
As far as defensive holding goes, simply eliminate the rule that makes it an automatic first down. So on fourth-and-30, a team can’t be rewarded with a first down on a penalty that costs only 5 yards. It’s one of the worst rules in football, and it has to be changed. Defensive holding has been called 115 times this season, fourth-most in the NFL.
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Reduce the numbers of penalties called
Today’s NFL in three words: So. Many. Flags.
The league hasn’t just become pass-happy – it’s become flag-happy. It seems like on every other play, there’s yellow laundry thrown on the field. Granted, most of the time it’s warranted because a cornerback simply tackles Antonio Brown at the line for fear of being torched by AB, but there are too many ticky-tack calls in the NFL today.
Too many times a defensive back is flagged for holding when he simply put his hand on the receiver as he was breaking to the sideline. And to make that borderline call worse, it often happens when the ball isn’t even thrown to that side of the field.
Holding, on the offensive side, is by far the most frequently called penalty in the NFL. According to NFLPenalties.com, there have been 434 offensive holds this season. The next closest? False start (341), followed by defensive pass interference (181). Sure, blatant penalties have to be called, but the pace of the game has slowed down because of the frequent infractions. Let them play a bit more.
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Lift the ban on custom cleats
Customized gear has been popular in the NFL for a few years now. Players often wear sweet gloves and specially designed cleats before games to showcase them in warmups. There’s just one problem: They can’t show off their incredibly detailed garb without being tossed from the game.
Antonio Brown, on two separate occasions this season, has been forced to change his cleats because they didn’t comply to the NFL’s guidelines. If he didn’t, he would have been tossed from the game. How would that headline have made the NFL look? “Best receiver in the NFL ejected for wearing cleats with Arnold Palmer on them.”
Yeah, not good.
Allowing players to wear custom cleats would be fun and would be talked about all across social media. It would make broadcasts more interesting by zooming into the shoes and having the commentators talk about them, explaining the reasoning behind them.
Allow players to celebrate
Football is a game. Games are meant to be fun. You have fun by celebrating and basking in the glory of accomplishing something few other people can. The NFL doesn’t like when players do this, and it has to change.
The league has cracked down on excessive celebration penalties and unsportsmanlike conduct infractions, leading to a whole bunch of unnecessary fines for players. Josh Norman shot a bow and arrow and was fined. Antonio Brown twerked in the end zone and was flagged. Tajae Sharpe was penalized for pretending to sleep. Heck, you can’t even shoot a fake jump shot in the end zone without costing yourself a couple grand, if not more.
The NFL needs to loosen its harsh rules preventing players from celebrating after scoring a touchdown, or simply making a big play. Let receivers twerk. Let a rookie take a nap if he wants to. Let those big power forward-turned-tight ends shoot jump shots.
Aaron Rodgers agrees: "Maybe stop policing the celebrations so harshly. I think that's one place to start.”
Decide what a catch is – and make it indisputably clear
Arguably the granddaddy of them all, the catch rule. Ohhhh, the dreaded catch rule. Gone are the days where common sense is taken into account when watching a reception. Gone are the days when a receiver can take two steps, reach for the goal line, only to have the play deemed incomplete because the ball touched the ground. If the NFL would just figure out what’s a catch and what’s not a catch, there would be no Calvin Johnson rule, or “Dez caught it” plastered all over social media every time Dez Bryant makes a spectacular play.
There’s no single clear-cut way to fix the current rule, but the NFL could certainly do a better job establishing what’s a catch and what isn’t. One way to simplify it? If a player gets two feet down with possession, it’s a reception – regardless of what happens after that. If he falls out of bounds and the ball comes out, it’s still a reception so long as he had two feet and possession. That would spare us all 10 minutes of needless replay reviews.